American Pastimes

American Pastimes: The Very Best of Red Smith cover art

American Pastimes
| Published February 16, 2014 |

Book review by Earl H. Perkins
Thursday Review associate editor

If you love sports history or well-written prose, then drop what you're doing and go buy this book: it's called American Pastimes: The Very Best of Red Smith (The Library of America; 2013). Daniel Okrent has assembled some of Red Smith's finest columns, spanning six decades of glorious memories.

Many authors write about famous people and historic events, but no matter what Smith was writing about, he made you feel as though you were right there. An original newspaperman, he was driven to write and had the ability to make readers laugh or cry, bringing events and history to life.

Possibly my favorite story was Dead Sea Downs, where Smith breathed life into a story about the racetrack where it all began. He took his family on vacation to the Holy Land in 1967, and they were driving around the West Bank of Jordan, which Israel had occupied in the Six-Day War. Little remained but a rickety grandstand, along with a few weeds and broken fence panels. But he painted incredible pictures about the history and people, turning phrases that resonate some six decades later.

Everyone has a different opinion, but I believe Red Smith (full name: Walter Wesley Smith) was the finest sportswriter ever. I've read thousands of columns, and there are hundreds of incredible scribes, but there was only one Red Smith.

He refused to write books, and shunned biographies or autobiographies concerning his life. "I'd rather go to the dentist," he said. He stuck with columns throughout almost his entire career, with most averaging around 800 words.

The book is a walk down memory lane or a learning experience for those who weren't there to witness life from the 1930's through the '80's.

Boxing, baseball and horse racing seemed to be his favorites, but all writers should study his football, fishing and golf stories. You name it, and he wrote about it.

Many stories were about people or places nobody but Smith cared about, but he gave you incredible background and occasionally quoted historic events from hundreds of years ago.

The subjects read like a who's who of sports: Ruth, DiMaggio, Walter Johnson, Red Barber, Stengel, Mantle, Rizzuto, Ali, Frazier, Joe Louis, Ted Williams, Henry Aaron, Sam Snead, Eddie Arcaro, Willie Shoemaker, Whirlaway, Coaltown, Citation, Secretariat, Seattle Slew.

Some say his baseball stories were the best, but I was most amazed by his boxing columns, and then there was horse racing. Oh, how he loved the ponies, and his love always showed through in his stories.

A native of Green Bay, Wisconsin, Smith graduated from Notre Dame, and his first job was chasing fire trucks for the Milwaukee Sentinel. He soon moved on to the St. Louis Star, where he was junior man on the news copy desk. His career in sports began with a stroke of luck. It turns out the editor had to fire half the sports staff who were taking bribes from a local fight promoter, so he recruited Smith because he needed a warm body.

He eventually moved on and wrote a large body of work for the New York Herald Tribune, where he worked for twenty years before it folded out from under him during the days when the number two competing big city newspapers were struggling to stay alive.  While Smith was at the Herald Tribune, already known for its high standards for news writing, Smith elevated the profession of sports columnist with over 5000 articles in two decades.  Time magazine once said that Smith wrote "the most polished, literate, and readable sports column in the country." 

The book itself is presented in a wonderful manner, with editing and an introduction by Daniel Okrent, a fine author in his own right. Okrent has written several books, including Nine Innings, Public Editor #1 and Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition.

He co-authored The Ultimate Baseball Book and Baseball Anecdotes, along with creating Rotisserie League Baseball and the WHIP statistic (walks + hits/innings pitched). Okrent was also heavily involved with Ken Burns' sprawling documentaries Baseball and Prohibition.

Included is an afterword by Terrence Smith, Red's son, who is also a fine writer. An award winning journalist and editor, Terrence has worked for the New York Times, CBS News, National Public Radio and PBS NewsHour.

There were a couple variations on the quote, but the words most closely associated with Red Smith were "writing is easy. All you do is sit down at the typewriter and open a vein." He finally won the Pulitzer Prize in 1976 while on staff at the New York Times.

Smith worked all the way up until his final week no earth. After leaving Green Bay, Wisconsin, he dropped 8,000,000 words onto paper, give or take a few.